Pharmacy School Blasts Fungi into Space

The University of Southern California School of Pharmacy is taking fungi to new heights.

The University of Southern California (USC) School of Pharmacy is taking fungi to new heights.

The school’s research team and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is sending fungi into space to find novel therapeutics that could help both astronauts and patients on Earth.

Fungi can produce secondary metabolites (eg, antibiotic penicillin and lovastatin) that have the potential to be useful in pharmacological treatments, the school noted in a press release.

The reason for sending fungi into space? Because the International Space Station (ISS) environment could create changes in the physiological response and metabolism of a fungus called Aspergillus nidulans, explained USC School of Pharmacy professor Clay Wang, PhD, in a press release.

“The high-radiation, microgravity environment in space could prompt A. nidulans to produce molecules it doesn’t create in Earth’s less stressful conditions,” Dr. Wang stated. “We’ve done extensive genetic analysis of this fungus and found that it could potentially produce 40 different types of drugs. The organism is known to produce osteoporosis drugs, which is very important from an astronaut’s perspective because we know that in space travel, astronauts experience bone loss.”

The research on the fungus could also lead to developments in the fields of cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The 4 strains of A. nidulans will be stored at 39.2° degrees Fahrenheit until they reach the ISS, where they will be placed in an environment at 98.6° degrees Fahrenheit. The fungi will stay there for either 4 or 7 days, and then they will be cooled.

The samples will then be returned to the pharmacy school in May.

“This is the first project where we see an intersection between pharmaceutical science and space exploration,” Dr. Wang said in the press release. “Drugs have an expiration date. NASA’s human mission to Mars is expected to last anywhere from 1 to 3 years. Not all drugs are going to be stable in that time period, so the ability to make drugs in space will enable us to go farther away from Earth and will also benefit future space explorations.”

The USC School of Pharmacy said it was the only pharmacy school to receive NASA funding for this kind of research.

The fungi will be sent to the ISS on Friday, April 8, 2016, on the SpaceX CRS-8 mission on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.